Death Smiles on a Murderer Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
Greta (Ewa Aulin) is a beautiful young woman who is abused by her brother Franz (Luciano Rossi) and left to die in childbirth by her illicit lover, the aristocrat Dr. von Ravensbrück (Giacomo Rossi). Bereft with grief, Franz reanimates his dead sister using a formula engraved on an ancient Incan medallion. Greta then returns as an undead avenging angel, reaping revenge on the Ravensbrück family and her manically possessive brother. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
For an introduction to Joe D’Amato and his horror movies, see the following:
The horror community best knows D’Amato for his strange slasher variants, Anthropophagus (aka: Anthropophagous: The Beast and The Grim Reaper, 1980) and Absurd (Italian: Rosso Sangue; aka: Anthropophagus 2, Monster Hunter, and Horrible, 1981), his gore-soaked love story, Beyond the Darkness (Italian: Buio Omega; aka: Buried Alive, 1979); or perhaps his violent pornos, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (Italian: Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi, 1980) and Porno Holocaust (Italian: Orgasmo Nero II, 1981). These films have hard-earned cult followings and remain part of the exploitation pop-culture consciousness, thanks to their controversial content, but they’re occasionally slapdash execution (emphasis on occasionally) doesn’t compare to the more consistent technical artistry seen in Mario Bava, Dario Argento, or Lucio Fulci’s best work. However, D’Amato’s second foray into horror following 1973’s The Devil’s Wedding Night, Death Smiles on a Murderer (Italian: La morte ha sorriso all'assassino; working title Seven Strange Corpses, 1973), comes awfully close to earning A-list cult status.
D’Amato was proud enough of Death Smiles on a Murderer to make it one of the few films to be graced with his birth name, Aristide Massaccesi. He not only directed the film (alone this time), he also wrote its story, co-wrote its screenplay (along with Romano Scandariato and Claudio Bernabei), and acted as cinematographer and camera operator (as he often did on his own films). As the overlong title implies, Death Smiles on a Murderer was sold as an entry in the early, post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo) giallo lottery. It doesn’t quite check every box on that particular genre list, but still fits the mould with its many Edgar Allan Poe-inspired plot beats, use of flashbacks, and baffling storytelling choices. Its closest cousins are probably Mario Bava’s near-gialli gothic chillers, Baron Blood (Italian: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, 1972) and The Whip and the Body (Italian: La frusta e il corpo, 1963), but there are also potent comparisons to be made to the more arty French-produced sex-horrors of Walerian Borowczyk and Jean Rollin. Like those films, Death Smiles on a Murderer is deliberately paced and more interested in exploring dreamstate imagery than evenly distributing explicit content over its 88-minute runtime. What really sets it apart from the typical giallo template, however, are the mad scientist/supernatural resurrection plot points, in which a Frankenstein-like family doctor (played by Klaus Kinski) discovers an ancient Incan re-animation formula. This develops from a seemingly unrelated subplot into a central theme, as D’Amato slips further into established giallo conventions, such as roving P.O.V. shots and unsolvable murder mysteries.
Though quite tame compared to his later work, Death Smiles on a Murderer sets an early precedent for D’Amato’s sense of uncanny sensuality, wherein genuinely sexy moments (again, tame only when set against his future movies) are tinged with insidious subtexts. This keeps the audience on edge during titillating and dramatic sequences, and even helps to define the characters themselves when the screenplay is otherwise unwilling. Gore is seldom used, but the violence is quite intense for the era, including a face mutilated by buckshot, a prolonged strangulation sequence, a super-bloody facial slashing, a victim pinned to a wall through his shoulder, and a show-stopping climax where a man has his face ravaged by a cat. That last bit became a centerpiece of the advertising, donning the official poster in several countries, and was perhaps a partial inspiration behind similar sequences in Fulci’s The Black Cat (Italian: El Gato Negro, 1981) and Manhattan Baby (1982), though the latter featured birds in the place of a cat.
The key component here actually isn’t D’Amato’s typical mix of graphic sex and violence, but the film’s handsome production design, Piera Bruni & Gianfranco Simoncelli’s kaleidoscopic editing, and the director’s outstanding photography. D’Amato combines deep-set static shots with odd angles, almost nauseating fisheye effects, and (as any fan will expect) crash-zooms that are disorienting in their own right, before Bruni & Simoncelli spin everything into dizzying expressionistic depths. While a big part of me – and I imagine many others – will always prefer the stomach-churning insanity of Beyond the Darkness (see part 2), Death Smiles on a Murderer’s technical strengths stand as an important reminder that D’Amato could’ve reached the talent level of Bava or Argento, had he been more invested in his work. Barring that, a few more well-financed, sexy period pieces and he could’ve matched Franco’s pedigree.
Death Smiles on a Murderer was released on non-anamorphic DVD on a double-bill with Harald Reinl’s The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967) by Legend House in the US. In fact, all DVD versions are non-anamorphic, which makes Arrow’s Blu-ray debut an extra big deal. This new 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is derived from a brand new 2K restoration of the original camera negative. The results are very impressive, especially for a largely forgotten, low-budget Italian release. I see none of the typical issues that plague a number of other Italian scans, namely CRT noise and DNR. Grain levels appear natural and are rarely intrusive, no matter what types of light levels D’Amato is using. Details are also sharper than expected, especially during wider angle shots, and the purposefully foggy/diffused shots feature clean gradations. The black levels are quite rich without completely crushing softer shadows and the sanitized white levels remain relatively clean without blowing out. The muted color palette also appears accurate, including consistent beiges, browns, and skin tones, alongside the occasional red, purple, and green highlights.
Arrow has included both the original Italian and English dubs in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono. Like most Italian-made films of the era, Death Smiles on a Murderer was filmed without synced on-set sound, so all audio tracks are dubbed in post. Each dub has its advantages and disadvantages. On the whole, the Italian track is louder and brighter, but features significantly more high-end distortion and buzzy dialogue. Meanwhile, the English dub is better balanced and significantly more consistent, but also much quieter, to the point that it sometimes sounds muffled. Personally, I opted to watch the majority of the film in English, due to its consistency and the quality of the dubbing performances. Berto Pisano’s moody, Morricone-esque music perfectly matches D’Amato’s tonal shifts and dreamy photography. Shock cues are minimized and romantic vocals/piano motifs carry the film through its oddest expositional sequences.
Commentary with Tim Lucas – The Video Watchdog editor and author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (2007, Video Watchdog) does typically good work on this solo commentary. He comes well-prepped with extensive factoids about the cast, crew, context, and production, as well as plenty of his own critical slant on the subject matter.
D'Amato Smiles on Death (5:57, HD/SD) – An archival interview with D'Amato recorded in 1998 as part of the documentary Joe D'Amato: Totally Uncut (directed by Roger A. Fratter, 1999) in which the normally incredibly modest director discusses his affection for Death Smiles on a Murderer.
All About Ewa (45:55, HD) – This in-depth interview featurette spans Swedish actress Ewa Aulin’s entire career. Her recollections are set against footage, trailers, and stills from a number of her films, including (but not limited to) Death Smiles on a Murderer, Tinto Brass’ Col cuore in gola (1967), Bud Yorkin’s Start the Revolution without Me (1970), Jorge Grau’s The Legend of Blood Castle (Spanish: Ceremonia sangrienta, 1973), and Giulio Questi’s utterly fantastic Death Laid an Egg (Italian: La morte ha fatto l'uovo, 1968), which really deserves a Blu-ray release this comprehensive.
Smiling on the Taboo: Sex, Death and Transgression in the Horror Films of Joe D Amato (21:34, HD) – A new video essay about D’Amato by critic, Diabolique Magazine contributor, and editor of Daughters of Darkness (pub: 2018), Kat Ellinger. Ellinger specifically explores the director’s work in horror and where his films fit in the larger context of Italian genre filmmaking, but also covers his earlier erotic work and, most importantly, cinematography.
English and Italian trailers
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.